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Kozuba & Sons brings Polish craft distillery to St. Petersburg

Matt Kozuba, left, and his father, Zbigniew "Papa" Kozuba watch the distilling process at Kozuba & Sons Craft Distillery, 1960 5th Avenue S. in St. Petersburg. 

The craft distillery recently opened in the Warehouse Arts District of St. Petersburg. The Kozubas are Polish and have been in the spirits business since 2005. With the understanding that the spirits market epicenter is the United States, especially with regard to craft products, the Kozubas made plans to move to the US. After a lengthy search, they selected St. Petersburg, with the thriving arts scene and small business support that they were pledged by the city being major factors in their decision. Spirits production will begin next week and public tours and tastings will start soon. LARA CERRI | Times
Published May 31, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG

Fred Langford swept up the coarse drifts of Canadian rye malt that had escaped the auger on the concrete platform outside. Inside, the Kozuba family tidied up from milling grain.

With its huge barrel-aging room, tasting bar and warehouse given over to fermenters and boiler pots, Kozuba & Sons opened last week on Fifth Avenue S in St. Petersburg's Warehouse Arts District. It's the first attempt at American distilling by the Polish family, an ambitious new venture in a region that has become serious about distilling.

Proof: Just last week, St. Petersburg Distillery's Banyan Reserve Vodka was named "Best in the South" by Southern Living. Proof: Florida Cane Distillery just moved from a dinky operation to 15th Street in Ybor City, with twice the space for its tasting room, microdistillery and barrel room.

The Kozuba family chose St. Petersburg for specific business reasons. It's hoping to capitalize on the perception that local means quality, a trend that has not caught on where they're from.

Why all the high spirits here? Florida's laws became more favorable to microdistilleries a couple of years ago, creating a separate category for distillers who distill 75,000 or fewer gallons per year and allowing them to sell on-site, directly to consumers. And generally, it is common for a craft beer boom to be followed by a microdistillery boom.

It's some of the same processes, ingredients and artistry, just with a few extra steps. Take Langford: Hired for sales and production at Kozuba, he's a recent graduate of the Brewing Arts Program at USF St. Petersburg. And now he gets to learn at the knee of a chemist.

First is the milling, then comes the mashing and the initial stage of fermentation, a process that takes about 72 hours. Last week, Zbigniew Kozuba, a biochemist by training, elder son Matthias and younger son Jacob put the room of gleaming copper stills through their first paces. The most recently distilled products require aging, so they won't be available to consumers for some time. But select products are available now in the tasting room.

The Kozuba family has had years of distilling experience in Poland, a country that had its distilling heyday between the two wars. Poland was mostly known for its eaux de vie and vodkas, mostly made of rye and potato. During communist rule, there were big government-run distilleries and mom-and-pop bathtub enterprises, but nothing that fit into the artisanal, craft category that has boomed in this country.

Zbigniew, 65, started this venture, as many ambitious folks do, as a retirement hobby. He moved out of Warsaw and into Poland's Mazury Lakes district. With a lot of time on his hands, he began tinkering with cordials, mostly fruity and herbal infusions of neutral spirits. His basement became overrun with jars and bottles. The local priest, chief of police and other area luminaries got in the habit of dropping by for a tipple, urging him to go pro.

Founded in 2005, Kozuba & Sons was the first privately owned microdistillery in Poland. But the Poles, it seems, didn't turn to domestic products for the premium stuff. Need a bottle of something special? Buy imports, Poles thought. It was an uphill battle to sell their premium cordials, vodkas and whiskeys.

The Kozuba sons would go to trade shows in Germany and China, marveling at the growing enthusiasm for craft spirits.

"We thought this would happen in Poland with a delay of five or six years," Matthias, 39, remembers. "But nothing really changed and regulations stayed the same."

In 2012, they decided to decamp for more spirit-friendly terrain. They zeroed in on Texas, California and Florida, states not too dense already in craft spirits. Falling in love with Florida, it was a choice between Miami and Tampa Bay. St. Petersburg, noted Jacob, 33, was much more flexible in terms of zoning.

"And St. Pete is more about being local and more of a walking culture," Matthias added. They chose a 1950s building, a long-empty warehouse that was once an ice house for seafood storage.

Relocating hasn't been easy. A passel of new American oak barrels filled with Mr. Rye had to be emptied into plastic tubs so Transportation Security Administration officials could inspect the barrels. Those barrels were then rinsed with a neutral spirit before the golden-hued Mr. Rye could be rebarreled.

Once the aging is finished, this will be bottled on American soil, making it a Polish-American collaboration of sorts. Kozuba's second product here will be vodka. Cordials will debut in unusual flavors (cranberry, dried fruit, sea buckthorn), not too sweet, but easily sipped or used as a mixology ingredient.

And Kozuba will introduce Tampa Bay to starka, a barrel-aged vodka named for a stork. A tradition going back to the 15th century, Polish families would distill and barrel a vodka, burying it on the day of a child's birth. (The storks-bring-babies myth is alive and well in Poland). Unearthed on the day of that child's wedding, the resultant spirit was caramel-colored and mellowed by all those years of subterranean relaxation.

Kozuba & Sons' aged vodka is called Starkus. And while this was not the first thing distilled at St. Petersburg's newest distillery, in a way, all that copper equipment whirring into action was making a starka.

Jacob Kozuba missed the first distilling day because of the birth of his second child. No word on whether the Kozubas will be burying a barrel in St. Petersburg.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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